New York City will be as enchanted an island as Bali H'ai April 7-8 when members of the original Broadway run of South Pacific reunite to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the musical's opening.
The groundbreaking 1949 musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein won the Pulitzer Prize and a netful of Tony Awards for its merging of musical comedy, musical drama, racial themes, wartime setting and memorable score. Several public events in Manhattan will mark the April 7 milestone.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization has been actively involved in commemorating the anniversary, assisting in the reunion efforts for some 30 surviving cast members -- including Betta St. John (the original Liat) and BarBara Luna (the original Ngana, who sang "Dites Moi") -- from the 1949-54 Broadway run. The 30 who appeared during the five-year period, including 10 who performed opening night, April 7,1949, will attend a cocktail reception, a dinner, a special curtain call at the Majestic Theatre, a South Pacific museum exhibit opening and a symposium about the show.
"Their stories are amazing," R&H spokesman Bert Fink told Playbill On- Line. "Many of the original cast veterans are also World War II veterans, having actively served in both the European and Pacific theatres. One member of the ensemble stormed Omaha Beach at Normandy; another was a P.O.W. under the Nazis."
Fink pointed out how remarkable it was that five years after V-J Day, some of them "were appearing in the biggest musical of the post-war era, about the very war they had just survived!" South Pacific, drawn from James Michener's stories, "Tales of the South Pacific," was considered groundbreaking for the commingling of an exotic wartime locale, its romantic plot and score and its serious exploration of racial bigotry, summed up in the Hammerstein lyric, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught." That song is generally thought to be the reason the musical captured the Pulitzer Prize.
The reunion was spearheaded by ensemble members Bill Thunhurst and Roz Lowe, in association with The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, the privately-held partnership that protects and promotes the R&H catalog.
Festivities began 7:30 PM April 6 at the Warwick Hotel, with a private cocktail reception for the former cast members.
Although the stars and featured players are all gone now, 30 original cast members and their spouses will attend a noon April 7 dedication of the South Pacific exhibit, "Younger Than Springtime," as part of the Museum of the City of New York's larger "Broadway!" exhibit.
"Younger Than Springtime" will run at least a year and feature historical information and rare glimpses into the making of the show. The exhibit includes costume and set design sketches, posters and Playbills, a video kiosk with rare TV footage of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza, Tony Awards, Martin's oversize "Honey Bun" sailor suit, and more.
The Museum of the City of New York is at 1220 Fifth Ave at 103rd St. Call (212) 534-1672 for information.
At 4:30 PM April 7 the cast members will take a bow at the curtain call of the matinee of The Phantom of the Opera, at the Majestic Theatre, where South Pacific played. That moment is only open to Phantom ticketholders.
The curtain call, which will include some comments about the R&H show, will be followed by a private dinner at Sardi's for the South Pacific vets.
On April 8, at 8 PM, Symphony Space, by arrangement with The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, will present "Some Enchanted Evening: Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of South Pacific."
Hosted by Symphony Space co-founder and artistic director Isaiah Sheffer, with guest commentator Ted Chapin (president of The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization), the evening will feature a discussion with members of the original cast of South Pacific, including behind the scenes stories and backstage recollections by chorus folk and original players St. John (Liat) and Luna (the original Ngana, who sang "Dites Moi").
"Symposium" is too stuffy a word for the evening, according to R&H's Bert Fink. "Celebration" is more appropriate, he said, particularly since the evening will be punctuated by live performances by Broadway's George Hearn (singing Emile de Becque songs), Liz Callaway (as Nellie Forbush) and cabaret star David Campbell (as Lt. Cable).
Fink hinted to Playbill On Line that a trunk song or two -- "My Girl Back Home"? "Loneliness of Evening"? "Suddenly Lucky"? -- may even be part of the evening.
Also featured in the evening will be rarely-seen 1954 film footage of original stars Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza singing an 8-minute recreation of scenes from the show. Not publicly seen since its original broadcast (a General Foods-sponsored tribute to R&H, run on all networks), the 16mm film footage includes a part of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," a reprise of "Some Enchanted Evening" with both stars and the entire song and dance of Martin performing "A Wonderful Guy."
Fink said the footage was shot concurrent to the 1949-54 run, so the staging is "fresh" and "absolutely" based on the original. That footage will also be shown at the Museum of the City of New York, in the laser-disc format.
Discussion with other cast members from the original 1949-54 Broadway company will provide a rare look at post-war Broadway, said Fink. Many of the cast members were war veterans, and women from the cast entertained in the war effort. "They will evoke the immediate post-war era and, I think, quite movingly, they all have stories about the war itself," said Fink.
Tickets, which are getting scarce, are $15. Symphony Space is at 2537 Broadway, at 95th Street. Call the Symphony Space box office at (212) 864-5400.
-- By Kenneth Jones